What is the opposite of Reason? To some writing in the late 17th and early 18th century the answer was Enthusiasm. ‘Enthusiasm’ meant knowing the truth by direct inspiration – being in direct communication with God. ‘Enthusiasm’, Locke wrote in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, takes ‘the ungrounded Fancies of a Man’s own Brain, and assumes them for a Foundation both of Opinion and Conduct’. Enthusiasts are ‘raised into an Opinion of a greater familiarity with GOD, and a nearer admittance to his Favour than is afforded to others’. They know that they are doing what God wants. Enthusiasm intrigued Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers because it appeared an exemplary case of unreason. More than dogmatism, superstition or intolerance, it represented the human inclination to ‘get above’ rational thought.
Immediate Revelation being a much easier way for Men to establish their Opinions, and regulate their Conduct, than the tedious and not always successful Labour of strict Reasoning, it is no wonder, that some have been very apt to pretend to Revelation, and to perswade themselves, that they are under the peculiar guidance of Heaven in their Actions and Opinions, especially in those of them, which they cannot account for by the ordinary Methods of Knowledge, and Principles of Reason.
Enthusiasm was self-deception hardened into certainty, ‘Men being most forwardly obedient to the impulses they receive from themselves’. It was ridiculous (hence Locke’s dry tone), but powerful.
Locke passed his intellectual curiosity about the powers of enthusiasm to his pupil, the young Anthony Ashley Cooper, who was to become 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury had Locke as his private tutor for the early years of his education and was to call him his ‘foster-father’. Locke had been at the right hand of his grandfather, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, leader of the Whigs opposed to the accession of the Catholic James II. The 1st Earl was immortalised as the satanic Achitophel of Dryden’s brilliant exercise in monarchist propaganda: ‘For close designs and crooked counsels fit,/Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit’. To his grandson, however, he was the epitome of public virtue, sacrificing himself – he was exiled to Holland, where Locke was later to join him – for the sake of liberty and toleration. It was the 1st Earl who had arranged for Locke to superintend his grandson’s education, teaching him the ways of reason and encouraging him to take seriously the civic responsibilities of his class. Shaftesbury was not exactly a disciple of Locke. (In particular, he came to argue, against his former mentor, that humans are born with innate ideas of both aesthetic harmony and moral propriety: ‘the Notions and Principles of Fair, Just and Honest’.) Yet his thinking was shaped by Locke’s trust in the capacities of human reason – and on occasion there was evidence of Locke’s scepticism about the willingness of humans to employ these capacities.
It was curiosity about unreason that led Shaftesbury to seek out the spectacle of religious inspiration. On 5 July 1707, he watched as John Lacy, a well-to-do Presbyterian gentleman, spoke in tongues before a London audience of interested observers and fellow members of Lacy’s own Protestant sect: the French Prophets. This millenarian group, founded by Camisard refugees escaping persecution in France, had at its heart a number of divinely inspired prophets. When Lacy first encountered them, he found them telling of a ‘glorious Dispensation, touching the Vocation of the Jews, the Conversion of all Nations, the Destruction of Antichrist, an universal Holiness to the Lord, and in fine, the Kingdom of God on Earth’. Impressed, he had helped publish their ‘Warnings’: utterances made under the influence of the Holy Spirit, which were accompanied by seizures and violent palpitations – ‘The Agitations of Body being the outward sign given of the Time, when the Word of the Lord comes into, or his Spirit over-rules the Mouth of the Person’. Soon Lacy, along with other new followers, was becoming a prophet himself (prophecy being the potential gift of any godly individual). Before long, he was the sect’s star turn.
Lacy’s performances were a minor tourist attraction. (The visions and predictions of the French Prophets also attracted the hostile attentions of Defoe and Swift, among others.) Shaftesbury was a philosophical aristocrat at the dawn of what he hoped was an Age of Reason, and his reaction to the spectacle was ambivalent. Was this sect a sign of the marginalisation of religious fervour, or of the persistence in human nature of a passion for inspiration? Lacy’s show did in fact ‘inspire’ Shaftesbury, for it was the occasion of the first work that he intended for publication, his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708). In the excellent, terse notes to his new edition of the writings that Shaftesbury collected under the title of Characteristicks, Philip Ayres tells us this, and shows that Shaftesbury was interested enough in these enthusiasts to read Lacy’s prophetic writings, and to quote several times (without acknowledgment) from Lacy’s A Cry from the Desart, his translation of a French account of the spiritual struggles under persecution of the Camisards.
Understandably perhaps, having indicated the path of Shaftesbury’s interest, Ayres does not find space to explain just how weird the self-exhibitions of the French Prophets must have been. Lacy’s divinely inspired utterances were spoken in Latin (though he would later, probably under an increasing pressure to perform, revert to English). His pronouncements, much taken up with the imminent Second Coming, were apparently less remarkable than his actions. Lacy published his own account of what happened when the spirit moved him:
first a preternatural Course of Breathing; then my Head came to be agitated or shaken violently and forcibly, and with a very quick Motion horizontally, or from Side to Side: Then my Stomach had Twitchcs, not much unlike a Hyccop, afterwards my Hands and Arms were violently shaken, at length a Struggle or Labouring in the Wind-pipe, and sometimes a sort of Catching or twitches all over my Body.
According to an eyewitness, there was much stamping, shuddering and a ‘mighty sweating’. As inspiration spread, the other French Prophets would take their lead from Lacy; the most compelling were several children, whose shrieked ‘warnings’ made it clear that only those joining the group of true believers would escape a terrible judgment soon to be visited on sinful humanity.
It is not altogether clear whether Shaftesbury was amused or perturbed by what he saw and heard. On the surface, A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm is an argument – repeated elsewhere in the Characteristicks – for the enlightening influences of ridicule and for the culture of toleration that is its seedbed. In France, where they were hounded and even murdered, the French Prophets might be dignified by persecution, but in the happy daylight of 18th-century England they would be frustrated by the laughter of ‘tolerating English Men’ and mocked out of countenance in ‘a choice Droll or Puppet-Shew at Bart’lemy-Fair’. (The lower orders, Shaftesbury liked to think, had been blessed, at least since the Glorious Revolution, with the same ‘Freedom of Raillery’ as their intellectual betters.) Yet in the perspective of Shaftesbury’s work as a whole the insouciant tone of this discussion (framed as a ‘letter’ to the Whig grandee Lord Somers, one of the chief planners of the 1688 Revolution) seems a little forced, the elegant humour somewhat defensive. Unlike Locke, Shaftesbury actually wished to celebrate a certain kind of ‘enthusiasm’, and the ‘Test of Ridicule’ that he brought to bear on those benighted millenarians, screeching in tongues somewhere near Moorgate, would be one that he would also have to meet himself.
Shaftesbury’s was an enthusiasm for the order of the Universe – or rather, ‘the Order of the UNIVERSE’, as he would have it printed. He argued that there was ‘a natural Joy in the Contemplation of those Numbers, that Harmony, Proportion and Concord, which supports the universal Nature’, but his philosophy therefore had to exhibit this ‘Joy’ as well as argue for it. His longest self-contained work, The Moralists, A Philosophical Rhapsody, allowed for the expression of such a proper enthusiasm for the created Universe, as its large number of exclamation marks makes clear. ‘O mighty Nature! Wise Substitute of Providence! impower’d Creatress!’ exclaims Theocles, Shaftesbury’s stand-in in the dialogue. There is much in a similar vein, sometimes lapsing into unconscious self-parody as the participants in the philosophical ‘Conversations’ admire the Order of Nature. ‘PRODIGIOUS ORB!’ rhapsodises Theocles, thinking about the Sun – ‘Bright Source of vital Heat, and Spring of Day!’
While Ayres picks up some submerged allusions to Newton’s writings in the Characteristicks, Shaftesbury is not interested in using science to substantiate his confidence in an orderly Universe. This might seem surprising, given that Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding had acknowledged the natural philosophers of his age, the ‘Master-Builders’ of the ‘Commonwealth of Learning’: Boyle, Sydenham, Huygens and ‘the incomparable Mr Newton’. In the face of their achievements, Locke declared, ‘ ’tis Ambition enough to be employed as an Under-Labourer in clearing ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge.’ Shaftesbury, however, was an Ancient, not a Modern. He did not need Newtonian mechanics to demonstrate his creed, which drew on a long Platonic tradition. We can see that Nature is an intricate and perfectly harmonious system by employing our reason, and without any special help from mathematics or telescopes. Shaftesbury seems to have been quite content that ‘we’ should include only a very few cultivated and undogmatic individuals.
It was his lordly enthusiasm that made Shaftesbury an admired and influential writer after his death in 1713, at the age of 41. The Moralists, with its heightened pitch of philosophising, seems to have been his most admired work. The ‘Conversations’ of which it consists are reported by Philocles, a sceptic who despairs of ‘modern’ philosophy as a merely scholastic pursuit, to his friend Palemon, a man of the world with a passion for intellectual enquiry. Philocles has, it seems, spent a long weekend at the country estate of his friend Theocles. Theocles, while being a model of politeness and genteel learning, tries to argue (or just rhapsodise) him into theism; he seeks to show that the order and harmony of the Universe indubitably require a benevolent deity. Over a couple of days of philosophical discussion, some good food and wine in moderation (‘circular Healths or Pledges’ are expressly forbidden in the mansion of reason), and some strolls around the lawns and groves, Philocles is won over.
Yet this does risk seeming a bit ridiculous. The Moralists is written to achieve a contradictory ambition: to exhibit a passion for dispassionate enquiry, a fervour for intellectual temperateness. The world that it asks us to enter is distinctly strange. Shaftesbury might want to extract philosophy from where ‘we have immur’d her (poor Lady!) in Colleges and Cells,’ but Philocles’ attainment of wisdom as he listens to Theocles celebrating the order of Nature could only take place in some philosophical arcadia. He is most often encountered ‘roving in the Fields’ with a copy of Virgil open in his hand. The most exclamatory passages of The Moralists indeed come when Philocles meets Theocles taking his morning walk around his estate, a bit of God’s England where gentlemen can apparently enter ‘the sacred Groves of the Hamadryads’.
It is often assumed, in Marxist style, that, Theocles being Shaftesbury’s spokesman, this pastoral setting is the 18th-century aristocrat’s idealisation of his own property: a manicured elysium where he can know that a reasonable God is in his heaven. In fact, the fantasy is more peculiar. Shaftesbury certainly retreated from the political vocation for which he had been educated to the country estate in east Dorset which he inherited from his father in 1700, but that had as much to do with his asthma as with his bent for reclusive philosophising. Robert Voitle’s meticulous 1984 biography suggests a bustling lord of the manor rather than an idle lover of landscapes. The estate was above all a large collection of farms, and their landlord seems to have been active, and rather enterprising, in ensuring their productiveness. The ‘verdant Plains! Known Seats! Delightful Prospects! Majestick Beautys of this Earth!’ over which Theocles enthuses are a long way from the busy acres that Shaftesbury managed. His ‘Moralists’ encounter a few ‘Hinds’, and see some distant ‘Swains’, while taking their thoughtful walks, but these are entirely decorative.
‘You never knew a more agreeable ENTHUSIAST!’ Philocles exclaims of Theocles. The enthusiasm Shaftesbury voiced through this character was influential partly because it was taken up by poets. His most fulsome literary admirer was James Thomson, author of The Seasons. This long – more than five thousand lines in its final version – blank-verse celebration of Whiggism and natural religion was perhaps the most widely admired, or enjoyed, poem of the 18th century. Shaftesbury is given a passage of panegyric in ‘Summer’: ‘generous Ashley’, who manages to ‘touch the finer movements of the mind’. His influence on the poem is ubiquitous. Thomson surely learned from Shaftesbury not only certain tenets of enlightened thought, but also a frequent tone of deistic rapture.
Nature! great Parent! whose unceasing hand
Rolls round the Seasons of the changeful year,
How mighty, how majestic are thy works!
Exclamation is one of Thomson’s things. He has learnt from Shaftesbury how to enthuse over nature, which is close to being a substitute for ‘the varied God’ whom he distantly admires. He even borrows Shaftesbury’s National Geographic set-pieces, notably Theocles’ tour of the world’s remote regions, seeing order and profusion everywhere. Both writers invite the reader to follow them ‘from Pole to Pole, and from the Frigid to the Torrid Zone’, delighting in the Earth’s sublime, perfected variety. Deserts and volcanoes, crocodiles and poisonous snakes, are all satisfying parts of a grand design.
Not only was Shaftesbury’s particular brand of nature-worship powerfully transmitted by Thomson, but as Ayres points out, the Characteristicks itself went through more than a dozen editions up to 1790 and – perhaps because of the lofty elegance that can now seem slightly ridiculous – became accepted as polite reading for gentlemen in a way that Locke, Berkeley or Hutcheson were not. It is the sheer pervasiveness of Shaftesbury’s influence in the 18th century, even on those who might not have shared his disdain for revealed religion, that makes this edition necessary. So Ayres provides a spare yet punctiliously edited version of the Characteristicks, scrupulous in its attention to textual variants but, beyond providing translations of the many and lengthy passages of Latin and Greek, minimalist in its annotations. It is there to make available a source book, replacing J.M. Robertson’s 1900 edition, on which scholars have had, until now, to rely.
Rediscovering the Characteristicks is often like catching the other side of conversations of which one has already heard a part. Surprisingly, for instance, The Moralists is full of turns of phrase and argument familiar in the poetry of Pope, and particularly his Essay on Man. It is surprising because Shaftesbury and Pope were ideologically so far apart, and because Shaftesbury was ridiculed in Pope’s final rewrite of The Dunciad. Yet the cadences of optimism in Pope’s Essay (‘All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;/All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see’) again and again echo Shaftesbury’s Theocles, with his certainty that ‘All is manag’d for the best, with perfect Frugality and just Reserve.’ In his less excited moments, his sayings can fall into a perfect Popean line: nature, he declares, is ‘profuse to none, but bountiful to all’.
The Characteristicks is also important as the other side of an argument with the age’s darker (or more orthodox) thinkers; it provoked many hostile rejoinders. Characteristically, Bernard de Mandeville, the century’s most aggressive theorist of human selfishness, went for the jugular.
His Notions I confess are generous and refined: They are a high Compliment to Humankind, and capable by the help of a little Enthusiasm of Inspiring us with the most Noble Sentiments concerning the Dignity of our exalted Nature: What Pity it is that they are not true.
It is possible that a person ‘brought up in Ease and Affluence’, ‘Educated under a great Philosopher, who was a mild and good-natured as well as able Tutor’, might ‘in such happy Circumstances’ see things through Shaftesbury’s rose-tinted spectacles, but the rest of us know better. All the rural retirement, all the literary politeness and classical learning, get in the way of what is ‘true’. Shaftesbury is too well brought up, and too polished a writer, to be trusted.
Mandeville was not much interested in Shaftesbury’s grand theistic scheme, more in his optimistic analysis of human nature, his argument that humans have an innate ‘moral sense’ and that virtue is inherently attractive to any reasonable person. Shaftesbury is the philosopher who believes that the aesthetic and the moral are the same. The ‘Admiration and Love of Order, Harmony and Proportion’ draw the philosophical person to virtue, he wrote in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue, ‘which is it-self no other than the Love of Order and Beauty in Society’. He sensed his vulnerability to misanthropic rejoinders. His second essay in the Characteristicks, Sensus Communis, grapples with the ghosts of Hobbes, Rochester and La Rochefoucauld, those ‘who have run Changes, and Divisions, without end, upon this Article of Self-Love’. He has certainly offered them and their followers plenty of hostages to fortune, from his assertion that the best writers are also good men, to his certainty that ‘A Man of thorow Good-Breeding, whatever else he be, is incapable of doing a rude or brutal Action.’ Often his natural disputant seems to be Swift, who shares Shaftesbury’s curiosity about the self-conviction of enthusiasts, but who recognises in all his parodies of modern reasoning that a belief in reason can be the worst kind of enthusiasm of all.
Indeed, the third of the essays in the Characteristicks, Soliloquy: or, Advice to an Author, is a kind of positive version of the avowedly rational discourse for which Swift invented negatives. The true man of reason, as Shaftesbury’s title implies, should learn to talk to himself – to become a ‘thorow-pac’d Dialogist, in this solitary way’. We can be fools or knaves to the world, but not to ourselves (you can almost hear what Mandeville or Swift would reply to this). ‘Self-Converse’ is where we turn for truth. Shaftesbury immediately has to acknowledge that some who like to talk to themselves – the hermit, the lover, the religious mystic – are properly thought to be mad, but this is because they are not truly alone. They are not looking into their own natures, but have their eyes fixed on ‘other mysterious Natures’. Only the Philosopher can know true solitude. The most self-deceiving solitariness is often that of ‘the Author’, tormented and twisted from truthfulness by thoughts of his readers; at worst, forced into a sordid kind of flirtatiousness. ‘He is no certain Man; nor has any certain or genuine Character: but sutes himself, on every occasion, to the Fancy of his Reader, whom, as the Fashion is now-a-days, he constantly caresses and cajoles.’
‘This is the Coquetry of a modern Author.’ In the philosophical writings of ‘the Antients’ in contrast, especially in their dialogues, ‘the Author is annihilated; and the Reader being no way apply’d to, stands for No-body.’ Shaftesbury makes a point of ‘forgetting’ the reader, and trying not to think of himself as an author. Of course he published his writings anonymously, but he wrote as if he could not think of a reason for publishing them at all. It is more than aristocratic affectation when he declares that ‘ ’tis no concern to me, what regard the Publick bestows on my Amusements; or after what manner it comes acquainted with what I write for my private Entertainment.’ This is also a philosophical tenet. The disinterested and therefore virtuous gentleman philosopher cannot address himself to a public, putting on the poses required of a modern author; he can only, as if carelessly, let his readers overhear his reasonings, bizarrely claiming that he has allowed them to be printed merely so that a few close friends ‘shou’d read ’em in better Characters than thos of my own Hand-writing’.
The Characteristicks as a whole have a self-enclosing quality. Shaftesbury provided, at the end of the final volume, copious notes on his own essays, ‘Miscellaneous Reflections on the preceding Treatises’. In some ways, this is the writer at his happiest: reflecting, often sceptically or critically, on his own reflections; generating, often wryly, a dialogue with himself. The ‘ingenious way of MISCELLANEOUS Writing’ is his delight, implicit in the full title that he gave to his collection. Systematic writing such as that of his mentor Locke, with its section-by-section organisation of knowledge, is in poor taste and inherently suspect. ‘The most ingenious way of becoming foolish, is by a System,’ he declares in Advice to an Author. Instead he dedicates himself to what Robertson called ‘the labour of being at ease’. ‘We shall grow better Reasoners, by reasoning pleasantly, and at our ease,’ we hear in The Moralists. Miscellaneousness is a healthy sign of this, a real literary skill. ‘The mere Amusements of Gentlemen are found more improving than the profound Researches of Pedants.’
In fact, Shaftesbury kept his strongest beliefs entirely to himself. As Ayres indicates in both his introduction and his notes, Shaftesbury privately practised a stern regimen of stoicism. Only traces are discernible in the Characteristicks. Its exercises of self-command, drawn from ancient models, were recorded in private notebooks, but were never for public recommendation. The Moralists may look like a credo, but it conceals what the author most cared about. Here again we might think of Pope’s Essay on Man: an elegantly achieved justification of enlightened theism that gives no hint of its author’s true devotion. In Pope’s case, of course, this was Roman Catholicism, while Shaftesbury aspired to be a virtuous pagan. For both men, private faith was beyond public discourse. Shaftesbury was left only with a special brand of enthusiasm to recommend, and with the risk that the rational enthusiasts that he invented would seem all too like any other enthusiast.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.